Monday 10 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Encounter, or, A Flawed Experiment

Certain aspects of this show are highly impressive – the technical sophistication, and Simon McBurney's performance. However, they are weakened by others – the script, and the degree to which I personally felt successfully immersed. As a result I was not as convinced as others by the show and, in particular, I felt emotionally distant from much of it.

The technical conceit of the show is to attempt to turn it into a kind of personalised bedside story. Thus, apart from the very beginning, each individual member of the audience listens to the show's soundtrack through their own personal pair of headphones. The effect is like a more sophisticated version of listening to a radio play (more sophisticated because the radio can't achieve the same surround sound effect). But it also isn't quite like a radio play because you can see the effects being produced in front of you by McBurney. His performance both physically and vocally is impressive, but I wasn't finally convinced about the effectiveness of the combination. On the way home the point of comparison occurred to me. A few years back the Festival included Pan Pan Theatre's version of Beckett's All That Fall in which the text was transmitted over speakers while the audience sat in rocking chairs mostly in darkness, the only visual stimulus being some limited lighting effects. That for me was a more powerful, convincing immersive experience than this.

That contrast arose, in addition to the reasons I've mentioned, from two other sources – this show's determination to be over explanatory about what it is doing and the weaknesses in this script. The worst thing in this show is the opening, where McBurney tiresomely lectures us about the world being a complex web of stories. It's the sort of thing that's been said on stage rather too many times before and I'm afraid here what it suggested to me was an unfortunate uncertainty about how to begin this story. The show would be immediately strengthened if this were cut, the audience just put on their own headphones, and we went straight into the narrative proper. Unfortunately, this subplot lingers through the show with an interrupting small child (apparently McBurney's) making periodic appearances, which mainly serve to slow up the central narrative. But that central narrative is also a problem. It is adapted from a book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu about an encounter between a photo-journalist and an Amazonian tribe. There are some magical moments to this story but it didn't sufficiently keep me gripped over the two hour running time of the show. There are also some annoying lecturing interventions here which give a simplistic reading of the question of primitive v. modern man (of the kind which I tend to suspect are enjoyed by audience members who have absolutely no intention of switching their consumerist lives for a primitive existence but like to be told that those lives are bad). Ultimately I wasn't convinced that this story gained enough from being adapted in this way.

It's clear from the background pieces on this show that McBurney has been trying to adapt this story for some time. At the moment the difficulties of so doing are too evident, and the version as it stands is not sufficiently successful to cancel them out. Overall, despite technical and acting wizardry, a flawed, overlong experience.

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